Film review: Spring Breakers

Spring Breakers stars Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and James Franco. Picture: Contributed/
Spring Breakers stars Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and James Franco. Picture: Contributed/
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A GRENADE lobbed at mainstream cinema, Harmony Korine’s tabloid-baiting new film is the best thing he’s done since Kids, according to Alistair Harkness.

Spring Breakers (18)

Directed by: Harmony Korine

Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco

* * * * *

Harmony Korine has devoted a large chunk of his career to making radical films that annoyed and destroyed the more conventional, respectable sections of arthouse cinema. So it was always going to be fun to see what would happen if he ever re-emerged from his own creative exile with the same force he had as the barely-out-of-his-teens scribe behind Larry Clark’s controversial Kids, back in 1995. With Spring Breakers he’s done just that.

Taking a tabloid-friendly cast (former Disney teen queens Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez; self-styled polymath James Franco) and placing them in a tabloid-baiting movie set-up (bikini-wearing beach babes embark on violent drug, alcohol and sex-fuelled quest to escape reality), Korine has created a hit that exposes the lack of ambition in mainstream cinema almost as clearly as he exposes the flesh of his young protagonists.

Of course it’s the latter aspect that has dominated discussion of the film, perhaps understandably given the way Spring Breakers opens with an extended, slow motion shot of nubile college students bouncing up and down in synch to the film’s bump’n’thump dubstep score. Korine’s camera, however, doesn’t have the same leering presence as Clark’s did on Kids, nor does it serve up the kind of context-free ogling found in tongue-in-cheek trash fests like Alexandra Aja’s Piranha remake.

Indeed the opening scene becomes a very purposefully placed visual motif. Frequently juxtaposed with darker scenes reflecting an encroaching reality, it functions as a dreamy reminder of the sense of freedom such fleeting moments of revelry promise but never truly deliver. Korine, then, is merely sampling what he sees in a bare-all culture and transforming it into a warped impressionistic view of a world that already seems warped to begin with.

This isn’t to suggest Spring Breakers is plotless; snippets of one do emerge. It’s just that Korine presents and re-presents different parts of the story at different times, recontextualising key incidents and dialogue to give the film a momentum all its own, one that breaks free from the tyranny of linearity without ever drifting into self-indulgent navel-gazing.

This is most forcefully realised during a heist sequence in which the film’s three wildest protagonists Cotty, Brit and Candy (Rachel Korine, Ashley Benson and Hudgens) rob a fast food outlet with water pistols to fund the spring break trip to Florida they’ve been planning with their more timid best fried Faith (Gomez). Shot in a single take from the outside, it’s bracingly original in its videogame-like execution, but all the more effective for the way Korine withholds nitty-gritty reality for a later flashback scene that he then frames – and this is the masterstroke – by having the girls re-enact the robbery for the benefit of the absent Faith.

These girls are self-mythologising, reality-denying narcissists, the inhabitants of a vacuous DayGlo hell in which money, guns and sex are the skewed symbols of adulthood, grasped at by a generation still attached to My Little Pony merchandise and Britney Spears records. Indeed it’s no surprise that Spears’ songs are reconstituted here as wounded, a cappella paeans to lost innocence.

It’s a heady cocktail, and, in some respects, makes the film seem like a euphoric prequel to the shadowy apocalyptic horror of Korine’s previous project Trash Humpers.

Korine isn’t making value judgments here. Sure, taking scenes out of context makes it possible to argue its status as both a moral and an immoral film, but Korine prefers to sidestep such things by presenting the characters in more mythic terms. This is particularly true of James Franco’s gangster, Alien. Decked out in ludicrous cornrows and gold gnashers, Franco plays Alien as a sort of idiot gatekeeper to a dangerous underworld, one in which Scarface on repeat becomes a blueprint for a life lived large.

His appearance is an affront to the black gangster culture he’s keen to take over, which inevitably leads to the film’s climactic kill spree, but also adds a purposefully uncomfortable racial dimension that links back to an earlier scene in which Brit and Candy, Alien’s most eager disciples, are seen ignoring a history lesson about Reconstruction in the South. As in Django Unchained, there’s depth here if you want it. Mostly, though, there’s Korine, defiantly lobbing grenades at the mainstream and exploding it all to hell.